Oh-ho...who does he think he is? tiger cub thinks he has something original to say about practising Mandarin tones?
You're gosh-darn right I do. I invented this, or at least I've never come across anyone else who's thought of it. I give it to you, as a boon.
I'm not an expert in Mandarin at all, I started picking it up from my students, using it in class a bit, and I've done a fair bit of self directed study and practice. I love languages. I'm around a CEFR intermediate in speaking and listening for daily functions and certain specific contexts, read a little, write not at all. This method is something I figured out that helped me, so I thought I might as well pass it on. I'm going to be suitably embarrassed if someone messages me and tells me this is used all over the world, but I doubt it. Obviously the concept of "embodied pronunciation" is not original, but this application might be. Anyway, it works. Impress your friends and intimidate your enemies.
The tones in Mandarin are,
Tone 1, high, ā
Tone 2, rising, á
Tone 3, dipping, ă
Tone 4, falling, à
Tone 5, neutral, a
Problem 1 - Tones in Mandarin are difficult for non-native speakers to reliably pronounce.
Problem 2 - Tones in Mandarin are difficult for non-native speakers to reliably differentiate and remember when learning vocabulary.
Solution - Move your head when you practice. Move it in the shape of the sound.
Tone 1 - Listen to your model of the target vocabulary. To produce and differentiate T1 reliably you turn your head to an eyes left starting position, as you produce the syllable you move your head from left to right. Your body will naturally sustain the syllable in T1. Hear it as you produce it. Hear it again in your mind afterwards. Include your target vocabulary item in a short phrase or sentence and practice again.
Tone 2 - Your starting head position is neutral and you will strongly and clearly move your chin up and out as you produce the T2 syllable. See above for general guidance.
Tone 3 - Starting position is neutral, you dip your chin in and down as you begin the T3 syllable, smoothly back up to neutral, and then past neutral upward and outward as you finish the syllable.
Tone 4 - Starting position is chin slightly above neutral. As you begin the syllable bring your chin down and in, smoothly and not too quickly.
Tone 5 - Produce the syllable from the neutral position.
So, there it is, move your head in the shape of the sound. It occurred to me one day, I tried it out. I'm not selling anything here, but this has worked for me, and native speakers tell me it seems really reliable. I asked all 1.5 billion of them and they all agreed.
Let's say you start with "You" (singular). This is 你 - Nĭ (T3).
The process is -
Listen to a model. Practice moving your head according to the T3 method as you speak. Hear yourself. Check you're getting it right. Get it in a sentence. Nail down the pronunciation of the whole sentence by practicing it all while moving your head through all the tones (yes really). You will get so consistent that you can quickly graduate to speaking like a normal person. You've modelled the correct pronunciation and trained your body to work as a system, so you don't need to make the exaggerated scaffolding movements anymore. You also now owe me favours and potentially money.
Getting multiple (not necessarily all) tones into a useful sentence and practising with the physical movements was useful for me. I made a list of simple (generally 5-7 word) sentences that covered all the tones and I would practice them with a language exchange partner a couple of times a week, changing the list as I got more accurate and fluent. One pair of sentences was,
Nĭ xiăng hē chá ma?
Would you like to drink tea?
Wŏ xiăng hē lùchá, xièxiè.
I want to drink green tea, thank you.
Notice that these sentences cover all 5 tones, are useful, and contain one and two syllable words. Get a starting list together of ten sentences like these, nail them down using the method, and replace sentences on the list as you perfect them. Once you've developed sensitivity and reliable production of the tones you will be able to learn and practice the tone of each new vocabulary item as you encounter it, without having to move your head. I cannot stress enough that the object of this is not to make you move your head the whole time you're speaking Mandarin, although you can if you want.
Finally, if you practice and get good at receptive and productive pronunciation early, Mandarin is a very fun and forgiving language to learn. Once you build a vocabulary, day to day grammar is pretty simple, and you can get a feel for how to string a coherent sentence together including new vocabulary very easily. If any of this is interesting or helpful, or I've left anything unclear please let me know.